Why haven’t Jayson Tatum and the Celtics scored at the rim in the NBA Finals?

As Derrick White pivoted, looking to find an open teammate, Jaylen Brown flashed to the basket. His defender, Klay Thompson, got caught watching the ball for a brief moment. It just didn’t matter.

It’s unclear whether Thompson and Draymond Green were supposed to switch on the play, which can be seen below. It is clear that Thompson lost track of Brown’s whereabouts for a split second, but a hyper-alert Green slid over to wipe away what would have been an easy bucket. Instead of slamming home an uncontested dunk, Brown arched a runner over Green’s outstretched arm.

The shot bounced off the front of the rim, just another empty possession for the Celtics. Through five games of the NBA Finals, Boston has scored 107.3 points per 100 possessions, an offensive efficiency that would have tied for 27th during the regular season. Considering the Celtics have shot a mighty 41 percent on a high volume of 3-point attempts, the vast majority of their offensive woes have come from inside the arc. From Jayson Tatum to Al Horford and beyond, they have just been unable to score consistently close to the hoop. Where have all the easiest points gone? And how can Boston find ways to start producing them against a disruptive, smart Warriors defense?

Not blessed with interior size like the Bucks have in Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Warriors wall off the rim in other ways. They have held the Celtics to 37.1 points in the paint per 100 possessions throughout this series, which would have easily ranked last in the NBA during the regular season.

The problem starts in transition, where Boston has barely done any scoring. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Celtics have only managed 98.2 points per 100 transition plays, miles worse than the league playoff average of 124.4. The lack of fast-break success helps to explain how Tatum, who dunked once per game during the regular season, has not thrown down any during the first five games of the finals. Making matters worse, the Celtics have only been in transition for 12.9 percent of their possessions in this series, which is subpar even by the slower postseason standards. When asked how his team can improve its spacing, Brown quickly suggested it needs to do more to push the pace.

“Play stronger,” Brown said. “Sprint, get up the court. (Don’t) let the shot clock dwindle down before we get in our offense, get up a late shot. Get our pace up. Play a lot stronger. I think that would help us and benefit us a lot.”

In the half court, the Celtics know what to expect from the Warriors.

“Their rotations are pretty direct every time,” Ime Udoka said. “The guy is going to be there. It’s just about making the read.”

More specifically, Udoka explained how the Warriors want to rotate.

“It’s pretty set,” he said. “They’re going to be there every time. Low man is going to come across, crack back, the guy playing the backside.”

Here’s what it looks like:

Green is one of the best help defenders ever. He’s a maestro of angles and rotations. He knows when to time his help. He knows when to bluff instead of committing fully. On this play, he took away what should have been a great opportunity for the Celtics by meeting Brown outside of the restricted area. Behind Green, Nemanja Bjelica slid down to make sure Robert Williams wouldn’t be available for an easy dump-off. Brown wanted to be aggressive with Jordan Poole on him. That should be a matchup for the Celtics to hunt, but Brown couldn’t find a lane to the hoop. With the shot clock winding down, he tried to make a play for himself.

Tatum (50 percent true shooting) and Brown (51.4 percent) haven’t even approached their normal efficiency levels. For Tatum, who is making nearly half of his 3-point attempts in the series, almost all of the struggles have come from inside the arc, where he is shooting a lowly 30.6 percent. He has only attempted 14 shots from the restricted area all series, making seven of them. At times, he has seemed frustrated with the lack of opportunities.

Repeatedly making the right play isn’t easy. Here, Tatum should have read the defense much better. Andrew Wiggins didn’t make his plans a secret. He barely even needed to react to Tatum’s drive because Tatum dribbled directly at him.

Like Brown, Tatum suggested the Celtics need to find more transition opportunities.

“You (play) in the half court, let them set their defense, they’re really, really good,” Tatum said. “I think obviously it starts with getting stops, then kicking the ball ahead when you do get a stop, playing in transition. Even if you don’t score, just putting pressure on the defense, then bring it back out and set something up. Walking the ball up and things like that, it’s tough to score.”

The Warriors do have weak spots. They just cover them up extremely well. Most of their perimeter players are smart and physical. Kevon Looney forever seems to be in the right position. When Green is able to operate as a free safety of sorts, he can shut off the paint almost entirely by himself.

On this possession, the Celtics found a size mismatch with Steph Curry switched onto Brown. With more space, Brown could have used his height, power and athleticism to find a path to the rim. Instead, Green busted up any hopes of a drive by essentially ignoring White at the top of the key. Brown, who clearly noticed Green lurking, settled for a one-dribble pull-up that missed badly.

“Golden State is a good defensive team,” Brown said. “We know that and understand that. So you be patient. You see the game as best you can. You get your spacing, you play with a little bit more pace. I think you get stuck in the half court, it makes it a lot harder for you. They’re a good team. This is the highest level. So we just got to find ways to be better. We got to find ways to be more successful in that end.”

Golden State’s great defense has taken away much of what Boston wants, but the Celtics still have left some opportunities on the court. Early in the fourth quarter of Game 5, before the Warriors went on a game-changing 10-0 run, Tatum had a chance to put his team ahead.

Tatum had the right situation there to be aggressive. With Looney switched onto him and Green unlikely to leave Brown in the corner, Tatum knew the help would come from a smaller defender. He just missed the layup over Thompson.

“Credit to Green and what he (does), keeping guys off balance, faking and falling, taking away some lobs,” Udoka said. “For us, it’s really the physicality of our finishes. I think we’ve been off balance, not going up the strongest. Point-blank, we missed some that we usually would make.”

At their best in this series, the Celtics have shown the appropriate patience to beat Golden State’s help. Much of the time that has led to open 3-pointers rather than layups. Udoka said that’s because the Warriors are “all connected” on defense.

“The kickouts are maybe more wide-open than the drop-offs in this series,” Udoka said, “because they are really good with the rotations.”

Here, Tatum drew all of Green’s attention before finding Horford near the top of the key:

Just look at Green on that play. With him and Looney on the prowl, the Celtics may continue to have problems at the rim over the rest of the series. They can still be sharper to create more efficient openings. After falling apart offensively in each of the past two fourth quarters, they know where they need to improve.

“We want to focus on the offensive end,” Udoka said. “Because I think we’ve guarded enough to win.”


Related reading

Slater: Klay Thompson has found his finals footing
Vardon: Draymond Green on LeBron James and the Celtics

(Photo: Kyle Terada / USA Today)

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